Forest SanghaNewsletterJuly 1995

A Temple Arises; Ajahn Amaro
Conducting the Orchestra of Form; George Sharp
Renunciation & Devotion: Stalk & Fragrance; Ajahn Munindo
Growing the Dhamma Tree; Lay Supporter
Supporting the Project; Krishna Padayachi
Sutta Class: Morality, Transformation & Liberation; Ajahn Sucitto
In Memory of Luang Por Jun: Pt. 1; Sister Sanghamitta
The temple: A space for Right Ritual; Ajahn Sucitto

Signs of Change:


The temple: A space for Right Ritual

Ritual is a common feature of religions. As a teaching or training establishes itself, its conventions become familiar, revered, and formed into symbols which convey meaning more vividly than words can. Ritual is symbolic action; it can range from the very simple - such as bowing, chanting, offering incense, and so on - up to very elaborate performances. Even the most down-to-earth people look for some ritual to bless their giving birth, their marriage and the death of those near to them. The ritual enhances awareness of the event and brings about deeper consideration of its significance.

In circumstances that we don't feel a part of, ritual may seem foolish; its impact very much depends on whether one's mind is attuned to interpret and receive the message of the symbols. Such gestures as bowing to a shrine or a person are only meaningful if one can either regard them as symbols in one's own mind of a higher reality, or else relate to the bowing itself as a valid ritual. If, instead of being used to refer to some higher value, a symbol is seen as a literal reality and gets empowered, or a symbolic act is imbued with magical power - the practice has moved into the realm of magic and superstition. Ritual becomes decadent when its elements are carried out without reference to the intention or the mind state of the people participating in it.

The Buddha, although generally dismissive of ritual, did allow a few to be used either for personal reflection (the going for Refuge) or for strengthening the community of the Sangha (Observance day meetings and recitations). However, subsequent to the Parinibbana, Buddhist ritual has developed out of and far beyond these forms. Even in the grass roots movement of forest monasticism, ritual continues to play its part. So we can ask: "What is its relevance to the West?"

Ritual is something that works on an irrational basis and therefore cannot be fully explained. It has the power to stimulate the essential quality of faith, saddha.
Unlike India at the time of the Buddha, our age is not over-saturated with religious ritual. We espouse rationality, and materialist perceptions of function and efficiency rule the day. Yet irrational pursuits - such as sport, entertainment or romance - still carry a lot of charisma and motivating energy. While putting flowers on a shrine may be seen as pointless, kicking a ball into a net certainly isn't. Games are enactments of social and individual ritual; they empower the person or the group, and connect them to a feeling of worth and relevance in the order of things. Unfortunately, the materialist order of things is an unsatisfactory one, and so the irrational cannot always be satisfied by socially acceptable games; then its dark side manifests as delinquent or perverse behaviour. Even at its best, ritual that is purely secular in its aims brings us only to the point where the power of the individual or the group is emphasised as separate from everything else. But religious ritual takes us further, out of ourselves and into the Absolute. If it is authentic, religious ritual empowers the group or the individual, not in and for themselves but as part of something vast and timeless.

The secular error is to deny that the symbolic, irrational plane exists or that it has any bearing on Ultimate Truth. We may either go along with it in a passive timorous way (not wishing to offend) or reject it as unnecessary formality. However, ritual is something that works on an irrational basis and therefore cannot be fully explained. It has the power to stimulate the essential quality of faith saddha, as well as awe and rapture piti and gladness pamojjha: factors that are complementary to the arousing of the mind to true collectedness and insight. Without these, meditation has to rely on the very ego power that it is aiming to transcend. Although one should be shifting to a higher centre, the ego can't find a higher centre than what it wants or needs or is going to be - none of which is very inspiring or gladdening. While there are other ways to get these spiritual energies going - such as having an inspiring teacher or a powerful reflective mind - the main point of ritual is that it can uplift a lot of people together, with the tremendous benefit of bonding a community.

So, right ritual. Temples or stupas formed an integral part in the monasteries that developed to become the normal establishment of what had hitherto been a peripatetic fellowship. They were the place for the kindling and firing up of spiritual energy in its irrational aspect. The rituals enacted therein would form a powerful focus and reminder of the path, particularly for the lay people who might have less occasion for direct contact with, and immersion into, the vision of the spiritual life. Even the form of the ritual structure had its meaning. Temples, like churches and mosques, reach upward and are structured to have a large proportion of non- functioning space. No matter what their actual size, they have an inner vastness. For a theist, this is an intuition of the Absolute Deity: for a Buddhist, it is a reference to the Unconditioned. In either case, the temple's space silences the mind and engenders the awe that allows us to see things symbolically. Then the ritual can reach the right place within us, and the goodness, the gentleness, or the aspiration that we enact acquires a sacred strength.

A temple has to be a structure, because space can only be witnessed within the structure that contains it, just as the Law, the conventions, guide us to Ultimate Truth. As we open in the sensitivity of meditation, that defined space may be conducive to the fine balance of open- mindedness and restraint, of freedom and deliberate limitation that stimulates transcendence.

Let's not devalue the grounded pragmatism of our approach. But also letís approach it with a mind of vision. Create the sacred space, raise the temple, and make it work. Whatever size it may be in literal terms, let it be vast inside to reflect on something limitless within us that our conditioned thoughts and perceptions overlook.

Ajahn Sucitto


Amaravati 10th aniversary packs:
A limited number of the commemorative packs produced for the tenth anniversary celebrations are still available. The pack includes reflections from Ajahns Viradhammo and Sucitto, a transcribed talk by Ajahn Sumedho, "Noticing the Space" information on: the Upasika training programme and the Amaravati Support Network and comments on retreats and children's activities. Please send a stamped (65g. - UK = 29p) SAE (big enough to take A5 folder) to Amaravati.